There are few dresses that break from the runway to occupy a totemic part of popular culture: Audrey Hepburn’s black sheath dress in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) is one. Almost 60 years since the film's release, it remains an alluring, still-fresh classic.
There Holly Golightly is, in the mind’s eye, wearing it as she saunters past Tiffany’s windows, pastry in hand: a night-time kind of gal caught, never knowingly-under-dressed, in the heady glare of early morning.
That famous dress’ designer Hubert de Givenchy has died aged 91, and with him a certain tradition of Parisian couture.
Givenchy’s partner Philippe Venet, a former haute couture designer, confirmed Givenchy had died to the AFP news agency.
“It is with huge sadness that we inform you that Hubert Taffin de Givenchy has died,” Venet said. Givenchy, who died on Saturday in his sleep, “was a symbol of Parisian elegance for more than half a century,” the statement read. “He was the first creator to launch a luxury ready-to-wear range. He [revolutionized] international fashion in creating the timeless looks for Audrey Hepburn, his friend and muse for more than 40 years.”
The designer’s “nephews and nieces, and their children, share Mr. Venets grief,” the statement added.
As well as Hepburn, who was his muse and with whom he enjoyed a “profound friendship,” according to the label’s website, Givenchy also famously designed dresses for Grace Kelly and Jackie Kennedy, who wore Givenchy famously on a state trip to Paris in 1961, and to her husband John F. Kennedy's funeral in 1963.
Born and raised in northern France and the son of a marquis, Givenchy moved to Paris to take on an apprenticeship at Jacques Fath’s couture house at 17. He became artistic director of Elsa Schiaparelli’s boutique before founding his own label in 1952.
Dr. Valerie Steele, director of The Museum at FIT in New York City, told the Daily Beast: “I think one of the most important things about Givenchy is that he was one of a small group of designers who re-established Paris as a capital of fashion after World War Two.”
Christian Dior was its leader, said Steele, and then there were also designers like Balenciaga, Fath and Givenchy, who became known for designs that combined “a French fashionability and femininity using all the resources of the craftspeople of Paris who used everything to make fashion an art object.”
The label’s website proudly proclaims that Givenchy’s ‘separates’ — “elegant blouses and light skirts blending architectural lines and simplicity—met with enormous success in light of the more constricted looks of the day.” In 1969 Givenchy launched a men’s label.
In dressing Hepburn, Steele said, Givenchy helped promote “a younger image of fashionable French femininity. He wasn’t as aggressively ‘young’ as Yves St. Laurent, but he helped push that image to a wider audience.” Givenchy and Hepburn met in 1953, and first collaborated when she starred in Sabrina (1954), even though Edith Head was officially billed as that film's costume designer. (She even won that year’s Oscar for them.)
In 1955, Givenchy presented his first shirtdress; “the evolution toward lanterns-shapes would become iconic," the label's website reads. “Audrey Hepburn, as the designer’s muse, accompanied him in inventing a style that would redefine standards of beauty.”
Hollywood certainly enhanced his reputation. Coco Chanel may have originated the Little Black Dress, but it was Givenchy, thanks to Hepburn’s both louche and devastatingly sharp inhabitation of an albeit-elongated (by Edith Head) version of the garment in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, that made it iconic.
“Everybody was doing LBDs in the late 50s and early 60s,” said Steele. “But because of the association with Audrey in that important role, Givenchy ended up being responsible for one of the most iconic images of the dress.”
Givenchy sold his company to conglomerate LVMH in 1988, and retired himself in 1995. After that, a series of high-profile designers such as John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, Julien Macdonald, and Riccardo Tisci took the creative helm of the label.
In an Instagram post on Monday, Clare Waight Kaller, Givenchy’s artistic director since 2017, wrote: “I am deeply saddened by the loss of a great man and artist I have had the honor to meet and get to know since my appointment at Givenchy. Not only was he one of the most influential fashion figures of our time, whose legacy still influences modern day dressing, but he also was one of the chicest most charming men I have ever met. The definition of a true gentleman, that will stay with me forever. My deepest thoughts are with his loved ones in this difficult time.”
Steele doesn’t think being known for Hepburn’s ‘Tiffany’s’ dress would have been a burden, even if Givenchy’s art and business was so much bigger than it. French designers had celebrity clients, and probably knew the benefit of the association for both fashion house and actress. Catherine Deneuve was famously dressed in Belle de Jour by St. Laurent.
Givenchy’s death marked the end of an era, said Steele. “He was a certain kind of couturier famous for making a relatively small number of exquisitely created dresses. Couture is still booming. The ateliers are still alive. But it has entered a media-genic era of Instagram posts, and perfume and handbags.
“Couturiers are still making beautiful garments, but they are a means to an end, rather than the end itself.”
If that seems unromantic, then best remember Givenchy via Hepburn-as-Holly, staring into those Tiffany’s windows, pastry in hand, and Henry Mancini’s ‘Moon River’ playing softly in the background.